Reach Out and Touch Someone
May 13th, 2011

I take my vitamins.  I walk my dogs every morning.  I go to the gym about three times each week.  I don’t drink coffee and rarely drink soda.  I eat my vegetables.  I get regular checkups.  And yet, the best thing I’ve done for my health in the past six months may have been the decision to stop eating lunch alone in my office and start eating in the company cafeteria with three coworkers.

As it turns out, our health is the product of a much greater combination of factors than merely what we eat and how often we exercise.

While trolling The Huffington Post yesterday I came across this article about how the Mediterranean diet isn’t just about food.  As a longtime disciple of fish, vegetables, and olive oil I was intrigued.   After World War II a group of researchers began the Seven Countries Study, which evaluated the health of more than 12,000 participants.  According to the article’s author, Georgianna Donadio, the study accurately identified that “certain Mediterranean lifestyles and dietary patterns were connected with good health.”  But the study failed to look beyond the food-based components of the Mediterranean Diet and further evaluate the lifestyle as a whole.

“…the Mediterranean Diet is not just about what people eat. It is about the values, habits, relationships, quality of how food is grown and the quantity of how food consumed by these particular groups — not just how or what they eat. … The whole health of an individual is about the physical, emotional, nutritional, environmental and even spiritual components that create our overall state of health. Our dietary choices and habits can be seen as a metaphor of what the overall or whole picture of that individual’s health is expressing. We eat how we think, feel, work and behave, all of which are influenced by our environment, values, age, financial and education levels and even by our gender.”

This explanation got me to thinking about a passage I read nearly a year ago in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.  Gladwell begins the book with a description of an Italian immigrant community in Pennsylvania in the mid-1900s.  The first generation immigrants in the late 19th century kept many of the old country’s culinary ways, but as their roots grew deeper in America they adopted many of their new home’s tastes.  A young physician was alerted to the strikingly low incidence of heart disease and other comorbid conditions and began to study the community.  What this physician found was a dietary and exercise culture like that of any other Pennsylvania community, as was their genetic makeup.  A thorough analysis of the community pointed to the town itself as the source of such good health.  Gladwell points out that it was the transplant of the paesani culture of Southern Italy – the intergenerational families, the civic organizations, the unifying effects of the church, and the neighborly culture – that insulated these people from the pressures (and ailments) of modern life.

These kinds of studies fascinate me.  It seems we are always looking for the short answer or the quick fix.  How easy it would be if the silver bullet to good health were contained in some tiny pill.  How easy it would be (relative to the truth, that is) just to adhere to a regimented diet and exercise plan.  But in today’s world, you know what is hard?  Participating in a community.  (And I’m not talking about Facebook or the blogosphere here!)  It’s hard to reach out to people all the time.  It’s hard to let other people reach out to you.  It’s hard to carve out time and effort for your friends, neighbors, and relatives.

We constantly bemoan the busyness of our lives.  As a working mother this genuinely resonates with me.  But studies and anecdotes like these always grab my attention.  There are incredible health benefits to friendship and community.  We may think that we are just fine going it alone – or even going it only with our immediate family.  But we are likely wrong.

I’ve yet to read a study indicating that strong friendships and strong communities are overrated and not worth the work.  If I ever do, I’ll be sure to let you know.  In the meantime, I think I have some reaching out to do.  Or at the very least, I should go eat lunch with my work friends.  I have to look out for my health, you know.

4 Responses to “Reach Out and Touch Someone”

  1. e Says:

    Wow – I love today’s blog. Hugely important for all of us to think about. In the craziness of life, alone minutes are valued (sometimes over-valued); however, in most cases I doubt you come away from a solitary lunch as revitalized as a lunch shared with just about anyone. The idea that it’s good for my health……just makes me happy!

  2. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    Good post! When we eat together with my parents on Sundays, I’m always struck by how different it is than meals the rest of the week, when food is fuel. Slowing down, appreciating each other, actually tasting your food…what a concept!

  3. anne Says:

    That year I worked in N Carolina I had lunch every day with my colleagues. Every day. I looked forward to it, and it became sort of our sacred time to unwind, laugh, and talk with each other. At my next job, I was back to eating at my desk, and I really felt the loss of that comeraderie. Food always tastes better with other people.

  4. Cathy Says:

    I can understand the benefits of this type of culture. More recently have been the studies (don’t make me reference one though!) about how eating dinner together as a family reduces the children’s risks of doing drugs and helps with setting healthier eating habits thereby reducing the incidence of obesity.

    I am slightly worried however because I just started a work from home job. With all of the benefits that entails, the one piece that has been nagging me is how I will adapt to being less social. That is one thing an office environment helps with. Even if I eat at my desk, I usually walk with someone to grab that sandwich or lunch du jour.